The dumping ground in the forest outside my childhood home had been used for centuries. Old liquor bottles were strewn about in disarray, full of slowly creeping earth, silently betraying their age. Wooden crates in varying stages of decay caged stubborn trees and greedy weeds alike. Rusting appliances told a history of man’s engineering evolution, each decade represented by machinery sporting ever hastening rust. The mucky, marsh terrain of the area slowly consumed these discarded undesirables, small and large, without distinction.
Gravity is a gentle, but persistent foe.
And so it was in this menagerie of garbage that my brother and I lived our epic adventures. We became hunters, soldiers and pirates, forcing our surroundings to bend to our will. The environs desired much alteration but our imaginations were equal to the task. A rotting piece of plywood would become a command center screen with a bit of chalk and creativity.
We excitedly pounded commands into disconnected, long obsolete keyboards, directing squadrons of fighter jets to pound nearby enemy positions. Tactical strikes or terms of peace could be communicated via keystroke onto imaginary display screens. Ever the little adventurer, I shirked no soldierly duties, fighting pretend enemies alongside my brother with the blithe glee only the innocence of childhood affords. Thus were the formative years of our childhood spent, mired in mud and bugs, broken whiskey bottles and the rusting hulks of old machines.
Fantasy rarely pierced by the reality of our lives.
We built makeshift forts out of any old scraps of wood we came across. There was never a shortage of old coffee cans filled to the brim with all manner of nails and screws to use. We hauled concrete blocks into the forest to bolster our improvised structures. We ventured deep into the woods and discovered massive boulders and old, forgotten boats. We played all day long, the skin of my skinny knees scraped bloody by encounters with jagged rocks or torn by forgotten rusty barbed wire fence.
And we survived.
Hell, we didn’t just survive. We thrived.
But at home, our parents waged a very real and unquiet war. Bitter words were wielded as weapons, meant to exact lasting damage. Secret assignations absent observation diminished a father’s honor. Memory retains visages of an indifferent husband absorbing the hysterics of a spurned wife. Infidelity fueled the vitriol, the burden of six children compounding existing rage. Anger and apathy coexisting under one roof. We feared the unknown, not knowing how to approach a world where mother and father were not as one.
A memory climbs to surface, secretly listening to another argument and finding courage to approach and beseech father to profess his love of mother. It works in the movies. The incomprehensible nature of the adult world personified in the naiveté of youth; met by a kind smile and a piteous request to go to bed. The status quo became defined by effusive pleadings met with cold indifference. Months later would bring a decisive moment: a slap across the face, a policeman in a cruiser and a father’s promise to visit soon.
By this time, I had grown so tired of the constant fighting that I was relieved when he was gone. Knowing that he had left and the world had not collapsed but instead felt better brought me some measure of solace. “It’s about time,” I told my mother. My siblings generally shared the sentiment. My younger sister – the picture of prissy – was more endeared to our father; hers was the more difficult transition to acceptance.
But we survived this, too.
And I was ultimately happier, more so with each following day. Life regained glimmers of brightness and my brother and I returned to the forest and our glorious exploits. What had once seemed to be such a fearful thing, a life without Dad in the picture, ceased to terrify. And as time passed, it became increasingly clear that the truly frightening thing was to experience the two most important people in your world constantly arguing. The source of all our trepidation was the sensation of broiling anger and unspoken hatred so close at hand.